I’ve denied this painful truth all year but can ignore it no longer: Something feels off with Marvel’s Phase 4. The pandemic has undoubtedly lowered my and society’s interest in the MCU, but I think Marvel’s problems go beyond that. It’s not really a content issue, either. Black Widow was a clunker of a movie, but beyond that the quality hasn’t been worse than previous phases. Loki and WandaVision are among Marvel’s best productions to date, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was nearly as good. The problem, I believe, is a lack of purpose in a post-Thanos world. As enjoyable as 2021’s brief trips to the MCU have been, I’m not sure any of them have convinced me that Marvel Studios’ best years are ahead of it.
In that way, the What If… series feels symbolic of the entirety of Phase 4 thus far. It has moments of brilliance, but it also feels forced, shallow, and, at its worst, uninteresting. Even so, those moments of brilliance provide hope that the next wave of Marvel stories will ditch the formulaic approach that has hindered their recent blockbusters.
Below you’ll find my What If… Season 1 episode rankings, complete with a breakdown of what worked and what didn’t. I hope you’ll enjoy the list, and I look forward to hearing where you would place each episode in the comments!
9. What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?
As a series, What If?… is plagued with structural problems that prevent each episode from becoming as interesting as they sound on paper. The episodes cram entire universes – universes that could theoretically hold dozens of movies of content – into just 30 minutes. As a result, familiar characters often feel foreign, and major events are handwaved, cheapening what actually happened during the Infinity Saga.
What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord suffers from this more than any episode. It cheapens T’Challa’s character growth throughout the MCU by supposing that his core personality would be unchanged by being a childhood victim of an alien abduction. The MCU’s T’Challa was plagued by moral questions, and the way he wrestled with them made him one of Marvel’s best characters. Star-Lord T’Challa falls squarely into the Gary Stu trope. Everyone loves him, and the universe is 100 percent better off with him leading the Ravagers.
The episode aims to provide cheap thrills by showing familiar faces living completely different lives, but it fails to achieve that low goal by providing no context for those changes. There’s no joy in watching a reformed Thanos joke about his abandoned plan for genocide because his reason for change is a chat with T’Challa. There’s no insight into what words Thanos needed to hear, or why other characters couldn’t reach him. Yondu’s new life sees him playing the role of pure hero, but beyond existing near T’Challa, there’s no summary of events that explains why Yondu has changed.
As great as it is to hear Chadwick Boseman reprising his role as T’Challa, What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord is too gimmicky to be enjoyable. It’s so focused on shallow changes to characters that it doesn’t even give a reason for T’Challa using the Star-Lord name. (Funnily enough, our episode review gave this episode a perfect score. Check that out for a different perspective!)
8. What If… Zombies?!
What If… Zombies has common DNA with some of the best episodes in the series. It’s centered around a bizarre premise that should reveal new sides of old characters, and it is completely untied to existing stories in the Marvel universe. Unfortunately, unconfident writing sucks all the fun out of it. What If… Zombies is predictable, tonally inconsistent, and inaccurate in its depiction of key characters.
A Marvel-themed zombie apocalypse should aim to be either funny or unnerving, and Zombies never decides between the two. In one moment, Happy Hogan playfully shouts “Blam! Blam! Blam!” as he is dragged to his death. In the next, Bucky severs zombie Steve Rogers in half and quasi-mournfully says “I guess this is the end of the line.”
The episode’s final scenes are a complete disaster, casting Vision as a mad man who lures people to his lair so he can feed zombie Wanda. Never once has Vision been characterized as someone who would do something so maniacal for love. Marvel kicked off 2021 with WandaVision, a show that transformed Vision from a third tier Avenger into one of the most thoughtful and selfless heroes of the bunch, and it’s strange to see What If… take him in such a different direction without sparing a moment for elaboration.
What If… Zombies is also riddled with plot holes. Characters make moronic decisions at every turn in a feeble attempt to stir up drama. Most viewers will see through the façade and quickly become disinterested in this world.
7. What If… Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?
Much like the other Black Panther-centric What If, What If… Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark is unable to capture its central character’s nuances. Erik Killmonger “solved” Marvel’s villain problem because his motivations were emotional and easy to relate to. Pain from his traumatic childhood bled through his hardened exterior and made the killer sympathetic.
That Killmonger is nowhere to be found in the reality where he happens to rescue Tony Stark in Afghanistan. The episode rushes through Killmonger’s plan for revenge, failing to invest in the relationship between him and Stark. Without a tangible bond, their inevitable showdown is anticlimactic and emotionally hollow.
Killmonger and Stark aren’t the only characters who are emotionally stunted. When Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan learn of Stark’s death, they act like they’ve just been told the coffee mug they ordered from Amazon is going to be a day late.
The script also turns Stark into Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones’ final seasons, draining him of intelligence for plot convenience. The episode supposes that Tony Stark’s master plan to kill the world’s most accomplished murderer – a murderer who has infiltrated his organization at the highest level and wants to kill him – is locking himself in a room with said killer while hiding behind one, I repeat, one, sluggish drone. The drone, I should add, is clearly meant for ranged combat, and Stark decides to hold the fight in his living room. It’s baffling and disrespectful to both Tony and the viewer’s intelligence.
6. What If… Captain Carter were the First Avenger?
There’s a notable uptick in quality between Captain Carter and the episodes below it on this list, but this remix on Captain America: The First Avenger reveals another flaw in What If…’s structure: Episodes that stick close to existing MCU material are boring.
I love The First Avenger as a film, but Captain Carter stumbles because it crams about 80 minutes of movie into 25 minutes of TV. Most of the major beats from the film are here, including Cap rescuing the Howling Commandos from Hydra, the train heist gone wrong, and the crippling bureaucracy. Haley Atwell’s Peggy Carter doing the super soldier work is the only meaningful twist.
I’ll never complain about watching Agent Carter kick some ass, and the action sequences are a major high point, but this episode felt like a vastly inferior version of something I’d already seen. In The First Avenger, Bucky Barnes falling off a cliff to his presumed death is tragic. The bond between he and Steve is at the heart of the movie, so you feel his loss. When Steve falls in this episode, you know he’s going to reappear, and that robs the moment of its impact.
The episode also makes clear that Peggy and Steve’s love story needs to be put to rest. All the talk about dancing between the two comes off as shameless pandering from writers who aren’t creative enough to break new ground with the characters. Their dance in Endgame was an emotional conclusion to Steve’s arc, carefully constructed through 10 years of stories. What If…’s writers cynically take the easy way out by banking on audience’s love of the dance without giving it impact themselves. As a result, Steve and Peggy awkwardly refuse to let one another say more than five sentences without mentioning dancing.
5. What If… The Watcher Broke His Oath?
The What If… Season 1 finale delivered an episode that leaves logic behind in favor of high-quality animated brawls.
The episode sees The Watcher, fresh off getting his skull beaten in by an Infinity Stone-powered Ultron, assembling a team of heroes from each of the universes the show visited. The Watcher has his pick of every single hero across the infinite multiverse, and the crew he selects to battle this universe destroying Ultron is Captain Carter, King Killmonger, Evil Dr. Strange, Party Bro Thor, Star-Lord T’Challa, Gamora, and Black Widow. It’s ridiculous to assume that he couldn’t have found a better team across infinite space, but once you set that aside, this episode is a fun watch.
Captain Carter, Black Widow, and Dr. Strange form the emotional core of the team, and each of those characters adds some much-needed heart to a series largely devoid of it. The bond between Carter and Widow is authentic, and watching them interact doesn’t feel much different from watching Steve and Widow in The Winter Soldier. Voice actress Lake Bell deserves a ton of credit for bringing a battle-weary Natasha Romanoff to life.
The other heroes are just kind of there, particularly Gamora. About an hour after watching the episode, I completely forgot that she was on the team. Party Bro Thor works wonderfully in his self-contained story, but he feels out of place in this battle to save every universe. Killmonger’s presence fails to add the element of unpredictability the writers want it to, and I can’t remember what Star-Lord T’Challa contributes to the cause.
Even so, the action scenes during the team’s battle against Ultron are awesome and cinematic. The standout shot has the cast battling around the Soul Stone, the camera zoomed in on the stone as the heroes and villains desperately try to grab it. The action scenes make the episode a reasonable payoff at the end of a mediocre season.
4. What If… The World Lost its Mightiest Heroes?
Now that we’ve enter the top half of the season, we can focus on things What If… got right. When the series turned its focus from tweaking existing stories to telling genre-bending new ones, it started to live up to its potential.
What If… The World Lost its Mightiest Heroes is a murder mystery at its core, and I’m ashamed to admit that I had no idea who the killer was until the final seconds before the reveal. That ignorance worked to the episode’s favor – those who solve the crime quickly may not have as much fun during the build up to the climax– because Black Widow’s quest to clear her name drew me in.
The episode also unleashes the MCU’s Weapon X, Loki, which opens the door for creativity in both story and animation. Seeing Loki hellbent on revenge for his fallen brother more clearly displays a part of his personality that was hidden during the events of the first Thor movie. Despite being responsible for Thor’s exile, Loki loves his brother enough to invade earth to avenge him. Meanwhile, the uneasy alliance between Loki and Fury succeeds in bringing the tension you’d expect from pairing two canonical rivals together. The pair’s epic thrashing of Hank Pym in the episode’s closing moments is clearly inspired by Spider-Man: Far From Home’s Mysterio battles, and it is one of the most memorable of the series.
3. What If… Ultron Won?
What If… is not afraid to kill our favorite heroes over and over in a variety of brutal ways, but while weaker episodes gloss over those deaths as insignificant road bumps, What If… Ultron Won is truly horrifying. Ultron completes his fusion with Vision, destroys the world via nuclear holocaust, and obliterates the known universe, and only Black Widow and Hawkeye remain to fight him.
The episode stands as a rare moment where What If… shows mastery of its characters. Black Widow and Hawkeye are the perfect duo to undertake this impossible task. They’re the weakest of the core Avengers, and their foe has defeated the rest of the team. By pairing them together, What If… leverages their longstanding chemistry to create a belief that they can succeed despite their relative lack of power. Determination to fight for good against the greatest odds is the core of what it means to be a hero, and watching Natasha and Clint press on adds an inspirational dynamic that all of the best superhero stories need.
The episode’s other thread, where Ultron somehow discovers The Watcher’s existence beyond space and time, is far less interesting. How Ultron can see him is never made clear – even with all the Infinity Stones, Thanos never had a clue that the Watcher exists. With infinite multiverses, there’s no way others wouldn’t be aware of his presence. If this plot hole was one of the first for the series, I’d let it slide, but What If… entered the episode already dealing with credibility problems. I find myself unwilling to let it go.
2. What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?
Even in the stronger episodes of What If… the series often losses sight of its core question: What would happen if someone made a different choice than they did in the Infinity Saga. What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands thrives by embracing its diversion, bringing viewers back time and time again to the moment Christine decided to join Strange for his award ceremony.
Through a compact and well-organized script, the episode keeps the focus locked on Strange and Christine, making for a compelling character drama. Reality slips from Strange’s grasp as he watches his loved one die repeatedly, his power over time utterly useless to prevent it. His descent into villainy is a masterclass in an origin story; his motives are just, and even as he crosses boundaries you know he shouldn’t, part of you is rooting for him.
Marvel tends to undercut its relatable villains by whacking audiences with a cudgel to remind them the villain is evil, but top-tier animation prevents that bad habit from holding this story back. When Strange begins to embrace the dark arts, the world around him becomes dark, fiery, and vengeful. The animation works almost like a Hans Zimmer score, soaring and dramatic during intense moments, and subtle yet tragic when the story gets intimate.
What If…’s tight runtimes are the only thing stopping this episode from achieving perfection, as a late story beat that creates a Hero Strange doesn’t get enough time to breathe. The idea is interesting, a what if inside a what if, but instead of doing anything cool with Hero Strange, the thread only blurs the focus of an otherwise concise episode. It does allow for a fun animated battle between the two, but a magic duel was not a fitting climax to a story this emotional.
1. What If… Thor were an Only Child?
Fantasy stories are every bit as capable of being profound as non-fiction works, but sometimes the best ones throw aside morals and lessons in favor of having fun. What If… Thor were an Only Child does exactly that, and it makes for What If… Season 1’s best effort.
Without Loki threatening to become the King of Asgard, Thor grows up to become an irresponsible frat bro who throws interstellar parties whenever his parents aren’t home. Instead of being banished to earth, Thor’s first encounter with humanity happens because he chooses earth as the location for his biggest bash yet.
The writers wisely identified that a premise this absurd requires a complete tone shift, and the episode ditches any attempt at drama in favor of going full Saturday morning cartoon. Every scene is packed with laugh out loud gags, from Surtr trying to woo the Statue of Liberty to a flustered Jane Foster stumbling over her words at the sight of the idiotic hero. When Captain Marvel attempts to beat Thor off the planet, the “camera” tracks them by zooming out to a map of earth, complete with the names of each country they fight in.
The whole thing is ridiculous, and the voice cast manages to sell it. Hemsworth and Portman lead the way, and their chemistry has never been better. Their romance feels more like something out of a rom com than a drama, and Portman’s straight-laced Jane is a delight next to the silly Thor. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is as great as ever in his brief appearance as a frost giant, and the best friend dynamic between he and Thor somehow works just as well as their sibling relationship in the movies. I would absolutely watch a 10 episode season that follows these characters.
What If… Thor was an Only Child is the odd duck of season 1, but it fully embraces its hilarious premise. The creative team believed in the idea completely, and the result is a delightful half hour that is the best What If has to offer.